By Michael Atkinson
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Portishead's Geoff Barrow is in Bristol's State of Art Studio and standing in the exact same spot where he recorded the lugubrious scratch solo to the trio's 1997 hit "Only You." He starts an anecdote about playing the song on Saturday Night Live but interrupts himself when he hears music throbbing in the other room. "I don't believe it," he says. "Someone's smoking cigarettes in the studio and listening to Wu-Tang. It's like the old days. We don't do that anymore. We eat burritos and listen to the Plastic People of the Universe." Those first two Portishead records—1994's Dummy and 1997's Portishead—were unlikely mix-ups of that smoky atmosphere and loping breakbeats, launching the trio to international acclaim and popularizing the hazy, low-lit subgenre that critics regrettably dubbed "trip-hop."
But Portishead's relationship with hip-hop has always been symbiotic; its music is synonymous with the flickering, noir sense that rappers have been trying to evoke for years. The band has been dutifully sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and a young Timbaland, not to mention flipped on records by Slick Rick, Three 6 Mafia, and Canibus. (Barrow's favorite Portishead rework is the Cincinnati DJ Ill Poetic's mash-up of their music and the vocals from Joe Budden's mixtape Mood Muzik 3.) The band has curated two days of this weekend's All Tomorrow's Parties–produced I'll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park, and the bill contains gloomsplosion merchants who file nicely alongside the hissy, doomy, analog night-terrors of Portishead's most recent album, Third: Swans, Mogwai, Battles, Earth, a collabo between Simeon of electro-psych pioneers Silver Apples and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of krautrock dreamweavers Cluster. But Portishead has also invited a formidable, pan-generational lineup of New York's hip-hop pioneers. Public Enemy will perform their iconic 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet in its entirety; Kool Keith and the rest of the Bronx's ill-angled Ultramagnetic MCs will make the most of a reformation; and New York murk-hop iconoclasts Company Flow will emerge from a 10-year hibernation at Portishead's request.
"Portishead gave us the excuse to do it," says Company Flow producer and MC El-P. "When I found out years ago through the grapevine that they were fans, it kind of blew my mind. They were just so clearly influenced by hip-hop. . . . It was amazing to hear this group paying homage to that vibe in a way hip-hop fans and producers could really relate to and making a record that every red-blooded rapper would gladly murder a child for if they could get the rights to sample it back."
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"Hip-hop is kind of my punk, really," says Barrow. Like many members of his generation, the first time Barrow heard hip-hop was through Herbie Hancock's wikki-tastic 1983 crossover hit "Rockit." After his parents divorced, the 11-year-old Barrow and his mom had left the valley-set village of Walton-in-Gordano for the comparatively bustling, urban fishing town of Portishead, where breakdancers showed off their moves to the sounds of compilations put out by the U.K. label Street Sounds.
A preteen Barrow popped and locked in "the worst crew in the world," the Freaky Fresh Four. "The craziest thing is that living in a place like Portishead, there's a little town called Clevedon next to it, another little town called Nailsea, a little place called Pill. The only reason you used to go to those towns was to have a fight," he recalls. "And through that period, people went to have breakdance battles. And I'm not talking about kids. I'm talking about guys who had spent time in jail. Proper, hardcore guys that got into breakdancing. You'd be surrounded by the hardest kids, but they wouldn't beat you up because it was a kind of rule of breakdancing that it didn't turn to violence." Barrow was a self-described "fucking terrible" dancer, the little guy the bigger dudes would throw around. "That's why I moved to the decks."
Geeked on Marley Marl, Gang Starr, and Public Enemy, Barrow started making beats on some battery-powered turntables and a really cheap sampler ("the one with the dog barking on it"). Working as a tape operator in London's Coach House Studio, he snuck off after Massive Attack sessions to record music inspired by American hip-hop and moody British electronic artists like Smith & Mighty. It wasn't until 1990, when the 19-year-old Barrow got a record deal, that he finally owned a pair of Technics SL-1200 turntables and a proper sampler.
The vinyl crackle and spy-flick anxiety of Portishead's debut immediately struck a nerve with alternatypes and soon plunged Barrow into commissioned remix work for of-the-moment rap artists Gravediggaz, the Pharcyde, and Nine. That didn't last long. "Yeah, thank fuck," says Barrow. "I always felt like I had too much pressure to prove myself as a hip-hop producer, so I always fucked them up. I was just shit at it. It never felt quite right because it was me trying to be someone else. It sounds like a mid-OK kinda the third hip-hop guy you go to. Oh, dear."
The Portishead remix for the Pharcyde's "She Said" opened Barrow to source the sing-songy flow of SlimKid3, which he scratched for "Only You," a deft, leisurely, bebop-inflected slowpoke that is one of the decade's most memorable uses of the turntable. "I got bored of the way people were scratching on records, other than DJ Premier," says Barrow. "Loads of people were just getting into that technical shit of how fast they can scratch, and they weren't even scratching in time anymore because they were just trying to do it so fast. What went from Jimmy Page into Steve Vai was exactly the same thing that happened to scratching culture. 'Look how many quadruplet flares I can do.' It was the Olympics of scratching. 'Only You' was my last passing shot of scratching because I wanted it to stand out more as an instrument, that it would be more wrong than right."
Barrow is working on a project called Quakers with his longtime engineer Fraser Stuart and Australian producer Katalyst. The hip-hop album will star "like 35 MCs or something," most of whom Barrow discovered on long nights drinking wine and perusing MySpace. But this weekend, he might reunite with Public Enemy's Chuck D, who in 2008 performed an onstage freestyle over the band's minimalist Mantronix robo-nightmare "Machine Gun" at Barcelona's Primavera Festival. "If we don't do it," Barrow says, "it's because I'm too nervous."
His band might get phone calls to put together entire festival lineups, but Barrow remains humbled by working with his heroes. "Honestly, it's amazing. I'm that breakdancing kid who's punching the air with excitement," he says. He does have a bit of bravado, though. "When you're younger, and you're putting music together, it can be a bit of a cockfight with other bands—the kids who got all the trainers and the right MPC. But RZA sampled me, so fuck off."
The I'll Be Your Mirror Festival runs from September 30 to October 2 in various venues around Asbury Park; Portishead play the Hammerstein Ballroom October 4 and 5